Google testing Sun's OpenSolaris, sources say

Google is experimenting with the open-source version of Sun Microsystems's Solaris operating system as a possible long-term prelude to replacing its massive global network of Linux servers, according to sources.

With dozens of data centers worldwide estimated to house hundreds of thousands of Intel servers supporting its flagship search engine, a Google move to OpenSolaris would be another of several recent votes of confidence for the platform.

Propelled by the release of Solaris' source code 15 months ago as well as new Advanced Micro Devices-based servers from Sun that run it, the nearly 2-decade-old operating system is experiencing something of a midlife resurgence. More than 5 million users have registered to use Solaris 10 since its release in January 2005, a figure that includes those paying Sun for support and those using it for free.

Google officials declined to comment. According to Sun and other sources, a number of other companies are using Solaris 10 or Solaris Express, the executable version of OpenSolaris, which technically only refers to the Solaris source code and the community around it. That list of companies includes eBay Inc., which touts its use of Solaris 10 on its home page; Yahoo; Vonage Holdings; Wal-Mart.com USA; Bear, Stearns & Co.; Disney Mobile; and Reuters Group.

"Google, eBay, Yahoo -- pick your favorite," said Sun CIO Robert Worrall, whose internal IT team runs Solaris Express throughout Sun and has advised many customers on its deployment. Worrall confirmed that Google already runs a "significant amount" of Solaris in its data centers and is one of a number of customers "excited about the possibility" of moving more Linux servers to AMD Opteron servers from Sun running some version of Solaris.

Google runs a stripped-down version of Red Hat Linux specially modified by its engineers. But another source, a Solaris systems administrator who recently interviewed for a job at Google, said he was told the company plans to create and test its own modified version of OpenSolaris.

"I am 100 percent certain that there are literally dozens of people horsing around with OpenSolaris inside Google," said Stephen Arnold, a technology consultant and author of The Google Legacy. Moving to OpenSolaris, he said, would be a natural move for Google, with its large number of former Sun employees and its never-ending drive to push the performance of its data centers to the hilt. But Arnold said he doubts that Google, which finished rolling out its highly-secret data centers in 2004, is deploying OpenSolaris widely yet. "Will it quickly replace Linux anytime soon? No," he said.

Solaris' recent popularity could reflect something of a rebound for Sun, which rode high during the Internet boom but was hurt by the postcrash emergence of Intel-based servers running Linux. It could also vindicate Sun's embrace of open-source, though its efforts to create developer interest in OpenSolaris remain less successful.

There are just 15,600 registered members of OpenSolaris.org, and 10 percent of those are Sun employees. By contrast, there are 25,000 registered members at one Linux project, OpenSUSE, and 380,000 registered members of OpenOffice.org, which was also open-sourced by Sun back in 2000.

While Linux boasts 665 user groups worldwide, OpenSolaris has just 32. And only five non-Sun distributions of Solaris have emerged, compared with nearly 400 Linux distributions, according to DistroWatch.com.

Stephen Hahn, technical lead for OpenSolaris, argued that other statistics, such as the number of bug reports and code contributions from OpenSolaris community members, are better indicators. And he said a limited number of mutually-compatible Solaris distributions is preferable to the chaotic Linux landscape.

"Why do all open-source communities have to look the same?" Hahn said. "I would rather have 1,000 developers working together than 12 different Solaris distributions."

Also, one of the major holdups -- the drawn-out process of creating a constitution for governing the OpenSolaris community -- is close to being resolved, according to Rich Teer, a member of OpenSolaris.org's current governing body. Teer says a constitution, modeled upon the Apache Software Foundation's meritocratic model, should be approved before the end of the year.

"The thing with Linux is that it is a benevolent dictatorship, with one person having the ultimate yea or nay," Teer said. "That is certainly not the case with Apache, nor will it be with OpenSolaris."

While OpenSolaris.org will legally remain a part of Sun, its government will eventually become "as independent as possible," according to Teer, who added that the company will eventually be "no different than any other member of OpenSolaris."

A number of companies are already benefiting from Sun's open-sourcing of Solaris.

"Before, you had to be a big Sun customer and sign a lot of [nondisclosure agreements] to beta-test Solaris. For Joe Admin, that just was not attainable," said Dale Ghent, a systems administrator at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Ghent is in the process of moving 30 servers off of Red Hat Enterprise Linux to Solaris. "Being able to test Solaris Express early gave us a psychological level of assurance," he said.

Some users are even embracing Solaris Express for production. Last year, California-based Web hosting provider, Joyent moved hundreds of servers and nearly 100TB of data onto Solaris Express and off of FreeBSD and SUSE Linux. Hoffman said the move has boosted his data center's performance while cutting down on costs and crashes.

"Once you've watched a bunch of your commercially-supported Linux servers crash every third day, you stop worrying that you can't officially call Sun for support," Hoffman said. "Some of our servers haven't been rebooted since we installed Solaris Express on them many months ago. They just sit there and make money."

Hoffman cited cutting-edge features available first in Solaris Express, which is updated monthly, for his willingness to experiment. They include ZFS, a 128-bit file system that can store radically more data than conventional 64-bit file systems; DTrace, a bug-finding tool that can be used even while servers remain online; and Zones, a virtualization technology.

Open-sourcing Solaris has also helped Sun rebuild mind share in an area it long ceded to Linux: on campus. "Until Solaris became open, students were only interested in Solaris for the same reason they were interested in NextStep Unix -- because it was this arcane, old-fashioned thing," said Asheesh Laroia, a graduate student in computer science at Johns Hopkins University. "There's been a major upsurge in interest in Solaris. So many people are asking, 'Should I install it?'"

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